From “Building Walls,” by Dustin M. Hoffman in Puerto del Sol Vol 47, No. 1:
Forget eight hours, lunch breaks, smoke breaks, bathroom breaks. This is a twelve-hour mother. Boss Sleeth gives our crew one day to finish this house. He’s trying out the boys from Mexico, and if we can’t finish fast as them some of us might not survive. We like their work, those boys from Mexico, who we know are actually from Colombia, farther south than Boss Sleeth imagines. They swing mud good as we’ve seen, good as we do. We like their brown skin against so much gray sheetrock. Makes us think of sun. We won’t see sun today, except for a mushy glow through the plastic-masked windows. Same windows, same bulkheads and bull-nose corners, same walls we’ve finished so many times our hands don’t need our eyes. But today we must be faster. Faster than men, than ourselves, than boys from Mexico. Today is ours to get through. Our walls to build.
Dustin has an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University. He is currently working on his PhD in creative writing at Western Michigan University. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Mesa Review, Artifice, Cream City Review, Copper Nickel, Witness, Palooka, Southeast Review, and Indiana Review.
Below, Dustin talks about his forthcoming piece in Puerto del Sol, his Michigan roots, and the trials of having a famous name.
Where did “Building Walls” start, or how has this story developed?
This story has been brewing for a long time. Before getting my MFA at Bowling Green State University, I spent ten years building houses, mostly painting and drywalling. Much of my fiction deals with work, and especially with the world of construction. It’s a world that fascinates me, and I’m often exploring the lives of these invisible characters, the rough-looking guys who build your homes and then disappear and most of us never give them and their lives a second thought. George Orwell captures this idea so perfectly in his essay “Marrakech” when he says, “All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important work they do, the less visible they are.” Making homes is about as important as work gets, and I want to give these people who work with their hands a visibility we can’t ignore.
So I’ve been writing about these guys, drawing from my experiences for years now, and in this piece voice is at the center. I wanted to strip a story down to be about voice first, and plot and conflict and character and all that other usually important business comes second. When I workshopped this piece, I took flak from my colleagues for writing what they called a “non-story.” I was lucky to have Jaimy Gordon leading this workshop, since she’s much more comfortable with the experimental. She calls this piece a long prose poem. And I think it is in many ways. From the start, I set out to focus on the lyricism of a raw blue-collar voice. I find that some of the most surprising language I’ve ever heard comes from this world of guys who often speak gruffly, bluntly, offensively, but what they have to say, and what they see behind the veil of the finished product, is some of the most poetic wisdom out there. I want readers to hear that, to hear the voices whispering from inside their walls.
This piece makes use of a collective first-person narrator that sometimes reads as the crew as a whole, sometimes as a specific individual within the crew. The story has tight control over this movement – what are some of the challenges and benefits of working with this type of point of view?
I’ve been toying with collective first-person narrators a lot lately. This point of view seems so natural to telling the story of work. When you start to tell someone what you did at work today, when you’re working with a crew in any trade, you begin with something like, “We were running smooth in the kitchen, everyone doing their thing, until so-and-so dropped a tray full of Grand Slams. The boss freaked out on her, and we kept our heads down.” For a work story, we just naturally start with that essential “we.” We’re a community, a group, a single entity, until one splits off from the whole, and then a work story is born.
Now, in this story, an individual narrator never actually emerges. Individuals are described by the group, but the group never breaks. From the first draft, I knew I didn’t want to break that “we,” like most stories that start with collective first person do. That was a challenge. My instinct as a story writer is to have an individual experience break out from routine and the group. I had to keep pushing that instinct back, that voice in the back of mind from workshop that keeps saying, Okay, now it’s time for the narrator to come out and tell us about their day like none other. You have to ignore those voices sometimes. And I did here. I wanted that communal voice to stay tight, even if it seems unnatural, almost surreal, that multiple people could think such specific thoughts at once. I think we do that at work, though, sharing a telepathic consciousness with our coworkers. That’s a kind of bond work creates, and it can be both a terrifying and beautiful thing. Through this point of view, I could explore that working-class sensibility, where the individual is choked back for an entire work shift, but a unique voice still struggles to emerge, even if no one person can own it. So, then, the point of view itself serves as a kind of tension.
One aspect of this story I really admire is how the large cast of characters never becomes confusing – I always know who is who. What would you say to writers (like me!) who may struggle with handling more then 2 or 3 characters in a story?
For me, it’s all about that one key detail that will burn into a reader’s mind. I think we spend a lot of time trying to round out every character, and then a story can get baggy and lose control. Keeping my cast of characters minimal is something I often do for this very reason. I struggle with this, too. But in this story, I embraced the side character, only really worried about giving a detail or two that would make them stand out from the group. And really, this story only has one character: the crew. Every time another character emerges, I’m just focusing on that memorable detail that will serve to reflect my main character in a new light. Perhaps, then, why the large cast never becomes confusing is because they’re not all trying to claim major roles. Each member of this cast revels in that one image or action they do so well. Each character has their specialty, their trade, which boils down to their part in the crew.
I know you hold and MFA from Bowling Green State University, and I’m always interested in stories of how people decide to go after the MFA, and now your PhD at Western Michigan. How did you come to pursue a graduate degree in writing? How has that journey informed your work?
As much pride as I took in my work as a skilled tradesman, as much as I admired the guys I worked with, I knew construction wasn’t the life for me. It’s brutal on the body, and there’s little security, as the need for construction fluctuates drastically. One of our mantras was “Feast or famine.” I knew I couldn’t live like that forever. I was scared of the famine, and what pushed me into an MFA most of all was my hunger to tell these stories. I needed time to get them right, and the MFA gave me that. I knew I had ideas that needed to become stories, and I figured out how to do that at BGSU, which is just one of the best gems of a writing program out there. Wendell Mayo and Lawrence Coates are amazing teachers, the rare kind that don’t push writers into prescriptions of what stories should be, but read your work considering what each story wants to be. Also, I lucked into a crazy-good group of colleagues: Brandon Jennings, Joe Celizic, Matt Bell, Aimee Pogson, Anne Valente, Megan Ayers, Jacqueline Vogtman, Stephanie Marker. This list of names is an essential reading list of some of the best new authors around. Go find their work. Somehow, fate plopped this working-class guy into a group of geniuses. And that’s probably the best part of the graduate writing world—to form these groups, and then you just have to hold onto these writers forever and make them keep reading and commenting on your work.
The MFA won me over. I fell in love with having a real writing community, fell in love with teaching, learned to shift my blue-collar work ethic into writing. And I guess I’m doing the PhD now because that work ethic and community stuck. I wasn’t totally sure about the PhD at first, but now that I’m fully immersed in the academic world, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. I love all of it, even through the bureaucratic absurdities and outdated literary periodization and all that other stuff people criticize. I can forgive all of that, because I love the culture and I know the PhD will give me the time and experience to be the best teacher possible. It’s a job like anything else, and you have to be open to learning new techniques. The tradesman who doesn’t want to learn a better way to hold his brush will paint you a sloppy wall. Same thing goes for teaching, for writing. The moment I stop learning is the moment my trade gets weak. And, of course, remembering days of inhaling paint fumes for a fourteen-hour shift makes me so grateful that I’m able to keep doing what I love.
Going even further back, I know your hometown of Alma, MI is a pretty small town right in the middle of the Lower Peninsula (I actually lived there for a year when I was 9. Small world?). As a (mostly) Midwesterner, I know I bring a kind of flatness to my writing that’s reflected in my speaking voice from living in Ohio and Michigan. Do you see yourself bringing any regional sensibilities or influences to your writing?
Well, a small world indeed. So you probably saw the refinery before it got demolished. Alma’s an interesting little Michigan town that had this weird combination of suburbia and its own private college mixed with a blue-collar factory culture. The college is still there. The refinery and most of the factories are gone. A familiar story around the Midwest, I hear.
I completely know what you mean about our Midwestern flatness of voice. We’re the ones who don’t have an accent, right? The ones who speak like the news anchors. I’m often envious of my southern friends, who have such a richness of regional language they can work into their fiction.
And this is a perfect question for an interview on “Building Walls.” For this story, I combat my Midwestern flatness by tapping into the language of work. Every occupation has its own accent and dialect and jargon and texture. That’s where I find my regional voice, even if that region is less geographically-based than based on situation. But work is a region itself, its borders marked by the EXIT signs and the punch-out clocks. Being from Michigan is an important part of what I write, but I find I really need to hunt for fresh language. So, I turn to work, and Michigan’s story of work might be one of the most complex and tragic and noble in the country. I find both regional language and subject matter in blue-collar Michigan. My regional sensibilities are two-fold, wrapped up in one another, in this state and its workforce.
Maybe you’re tired of people referring to this, but I can’t help but notice you share a name with the actor Dustin Hoffman. Do you run into problems from having the same name as a well-known public figure? Are there benefits?
What, no Rain Man jokes? I’ve heard every single one you can imagine, and when I was in grade school, I hated that man for doing Tootsie.
When I was an undergrad, long before I started publishing, one of my workshop teachers suggested going by D. M. Hoffman. That sounds like a sci-fi writer to me. So I just threw in the middle initial, and that seems to have worked okay. If I put everything in quotes with the initial, I can even Google myself without too much trouble from The Graduate. I have a sneaking suspicion that some journals might take a secret delight in getting to say they’ve published work by Dustin Hoffman. The biggest advantage: In my early twenties, I got paid to do a radio commercial for a cell phone company that made regular Joes with famous names read a bunch of movie-based puns. “Don’t wag the dog at our prices,” or some nonsense like that.
What current projects are you working on? What’s on the horizon for you right now?
I’m a story writer with no interest in writing a novel. Not right now anyway. I take too much joy in the form of the short story and what it opens up to me for style and structure and the ability to keep trying out new things. I have a story collection I’m starting to send out themed around stories of work, and “Building Walls” is the tentative title story. I’m finishing a second collection, too. I’m not exactly sure how this second one connects together, but that’s the joy of putting together a collection, looking at these stories you have and seeing which ones fit and which ones need to be shelved for later and then how they all come together to make some kind of unified whole.
I’ll be sticking with the short story for the foreseeable future. I’ve had great luck with many wonderful journals who’ve taken chances publishing my work. I truly love the short story form and the publishing culture surrounding it.
Thanks again for your time! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the great questions. And thanks to everyone at Puerto del Sol. I’m honored to be a part of such a fine magazine that just impresses me more every issue.
Order your copy of Puerto del Sol 47.1 to read Dustin’s full story and the work of other great writers. Pre-orders available now: Puerto del Sol, Vol 47, No. 1: $10:00